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June 11, 2014 - by Bryan Cantrill
Several years ago, I gave a presentation on corporate open source anti-patterns. Several of my anti-patterns were clear and unequivocal (e.g., don't announce that you're open sourcing something without making the source code available, dummy!), but others were more complicated. One of the more nuanced anti-patterns was around copyright assignment and contributor license agreements: while I believe these constructs to be well-intended (namely, to preserve relicensing options for the open source project and to protect that project from third-party claims of copyright and patent infringement), I believe that they are not without significant risks with respect to the health of the community. Even at their very best, CLAs and copyright assignments act as a drag on contributions as new corporate contributors are forced to seek out their legal department—which seems like asking people to go to the dentist before their pull request can be considered. And that's the very best case; at worst, these agreements and assignments grant a corporate entity (or, as I have personally learned the hard way, its acquirer) the latitude for gross misbehavior. Because this very worst scenario had burned us in the illumos community, illumos has been without CLA and copyright assignment since its inception: as with Linux, contributors hold copyright to their own contributions and agree to license it under the prevailing terms of the source base. Further, we at Joyent have also adopted this approach in the many open source components we develop in the node.js ecosystem: like many (most?) GitHub-hosted projects, there is no CLA or copyright assignment for node-bunyan, node-restify, ldap.js, node-vasync, etc. But while many Joyent-led projects have been without copyright assignment and CLA, one very significant Joyent-led project has had a CLA: node.js itself.
While node.js is a Joyent-led project, I also believe that communities must make their own decisions—and a CLA is a sufficiently nuanced issue that reasonable people can disagree on its ultimate merits. That is, despite my own views on a CLA, I have viewed the responsibility for the CLA as residing with the node.js leadership team, not with me. The upshot has been that the node.js status quo of a CLA (one essentially inherited from Google's CLA for V8) has remained in place for several years.
Given this background you can imagine that I found it very heartwarming that when node.js core lead TJ Fontaine returned from his recent Node on the Road tour, one of the conclusions he came to was that the CLA had outlived its usefulness—and that we should simply obliterate it. I am pleased to announce that today, we are doing just that: we have eliminated the CLA for node.js. Doing this lowers the barrier to entry for node.js contributors thereby broadening the contributor base. It also brings node.js in line with other projects that Joyent leads and (not unimportantly!) assures that we ourselves are not falling into corporate open source anti-patterns!